Nov 25


Author Interview: Harris Powell-Smith, Crème de la Crème

Posted by: Mary Duffy | Comments (1)

Climb to the very top of the class at your exclusive private school for socialites! Will you study hard, find a perfect match, or embrace scandal? Gallatin College is a “finishing school” where young people must learn social graces, surrounded by their high-class peers. When your parents fall into disgrace, the rest of high society rejects them. It’s up to you to enroll at Gallatin, to secure your future and restore the family’s good name.

Crème de la Crème is a 440,000-word interactive novel by Harris Powell-Smith, author of Blood Money. I sat down with Harris to discuss their new games and the foibles of all high school experiences. Crème de la Crème releases this Wednesday, November 27th. 

Crème de la Crème is set in a second world’s version of Europe at Gallatin College, which is a finishing school. I think our readers may be confused by “college” referring to what we call high school in the U.S., or secondary school elsewhere, and also confused by what a finishing school is in this world (or in our world.) In the U.S. we have a long 19th-C forward tradition of finishing schools for young women, but those that still exist today focus strongly on academics like a prep school, rather than…deportment and husband-hunting skills. And Gallatin is co-ed! So please, lay it all out for us.

Gallatin is a co-ed finishing school for young people to get a genteel education so they can fit in with the upper crust of society, and the age range of boarders is around 12 to 18. In Crème de la Crème, you’re in your final year, having completed most of your education elsewhere. Etiquette, deportment, and general manners and bearing are some of the most important aspects of Gallatin, but the college also prides itself on turning out well-rounded students, so you’ll learn about the arts, philosophy, fancy sports and so on as well…mostly so you can impress your fellow guests at dinner parties.

Although the environment is highly exclusive, the students at Gallatin aren’t expected to become political or military leaders, to have major careers or be hugely academic. Mostly, they’re expected to become socialites and live a life of leisure, or make a good match to an eligible partner–but there are plenty of options in the game for those with ambitions in other areas.

I was inspired by Swiss finishing schools, or “charm schools” for young women in the late 19th to early 20th century. They were a strange, rarified environment which combined immense privileges and social restriction. Nowadays, such places are less gendered–in theory–and often focus on business etiquette, which has a host of interesting class biases in itself. In Crème de la Crème, I wanted to play with the idea of a charm school while reducing some real world marginalizations–same sex marriage is accepted, women aren’t the only ones who are expected to adhere to the rules of a debutante–while keeping a feeling of constrained, weird, class-stratified social mores.

This is your second COG, your first being Blood Money, and I have to remark on what a departure Crème de la Crème is! What took you in this direction?

I’ve written a lot of dark fantasy in my time and wanted to try out lighter fare, experimenting with making stakes and tension feel high while not necessarily being life or death. There are darker things going on beneath the surface at Gallatin, but you can’t just take a hit out on someone like you can in Blood Money, and I liked the idea of pushing the player to deal with problems in different ways!

While writing Blood Money, I’d been mulling over school stories, reading books like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparks, Laurinda by Alice Pung, and Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, and had been playing a lot of Monsterhearts tabletop games. The pressure-cooker, rigid environment appealed to me as a surefire way of creating characterful drama. I also wanted to try my hand at a game where romance and friendship were brought to the forefront. Blood Money is more family orientated, and I liked the idea of focusing on different–though still potentially fraught–relationships. I love a bit of figuring out how to deal with difficult people in games!

There are a few thematic similarities. Blood Money has aristocrats draining literal lifeblood from people to power their dodgy schemes. Crème de la Crème has aristocrats who are…well, less literal bloodsuckers, but are exploitative, and blinkered about their place in the world. Also, I love writing about fancy parties and outrageously opulent outfits. Blood Money has a touch of that, which I enjoyed a lot, and in Crème de la Crème, I got to let my imagination loose when describing evening wear!

This is a pretty massive game, coming in at 400k+, so even longer than Blood Money. And yet, you wrote it relatively quickly. Tell me a little about your process. What was easier the second time around?

Making and polishing up the outline was much easier having made one before, and I found that having that sense of the broader plot affected everything positively. I still had points where I changed my mind about scenes or chapter events, but I felt much more clear about what I was doing.

After the outline was greenlit, I wrote broad strokes summaries of scenes and major choices for the chapter I was about to start. I then coded everything with placeholder text, and did automated testing often to check that it all worked, and to check balance. Then I filled in the writing. I’d often shuffle things around at that stage, but it was great to have it in place first. I learned that that method suited me partway through Blood Money, and it’s served me well.

On the nitty-gritty side of things, ChoiceScript now has functionality which makes it much easier to implement variably-gendered characters. I had more experience, so was more confident about coding things like repeatedly calculating who likes the main character the most, or using RandomTest to balance difficulty. I had a better understanding of using *bug to weed out unlikely but game-breaking situations, and the code is generally more efficient. And honestly, I also was more confident this time round because of having a game under my belt already.

I would not necessarily recommend including ten romanceable or befriendable NPCs, though–that’s where a lot of the 400K+ words went. I love my characters and I hope players love them too, but whew, that’s a lot!

Do you have a favorite NPC?

It’s so hard to choose, but I think the Honourable Florin Kraemer, from Archambault Academy, a neighbouring school to Gallatin. The two establishments have a longstanding rivalry. Florin has very little to worry about in life, is a notorious flirt and treats people carelessly…but gets some nice one liners, and I had a lot of fun writing a character who doesn’t take things seriously. Florin’s not as readily accessible as some of the other characters like the Gallatin classmates, but I always know what they’d say or do in any given situation. It’s usually something annoying.

What sort of student were you in high school? Do you have an analogue at Gallatin?

I was as cool as you might expect from someone who made a lot of romance mods for RPGs, but I was fortunate enough to have a circle of close friends who were very important to me. My school was very academically focused which I think helped me fit in–everyone was nerdy to a certain degree. I worked very hard, loved English Literature and the humanities, and hated PE.

I think my closest analogues in Gallatin are Freddie (high achieving, nerdy) and Delacroix (gothy in my late teens, told off for reading Tarot cards in the library at lunchtime). Though I hasten to add that Delacroix’s family bears no resemblance to mine!

And what else are you working on now?

I’ve just started working at Fusebox Games, a UK-based game studio, which I’m really excited about! By night, I’m drafting a mobile game about small-time teens summoning demons, and have done work on Fallen London about creepy competing aristocrats. Both will be out in the wider world at a later date.

As for CoG games, I currently have an idea set in the Crème de la Crème universe, and others more in the dark fantasy vein–between them or potential ideas for romance-focused games, I’d love to make more ChoiceScript games in the future.

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